Director: Don Argott
9.14 Pictures/Epic Records
Yes, As The Palaces Burn is a documentary about the metal band Lamb of God. But, crucially, you do not have to be a fan of the band to get something from this film – I couldn’t call myself a fan; I know they’re talented musicians, I have a lot more respect for them having watched this – I’ve liked what I’ve heard from the band, I may even follow-up as a result of watching this but as a standalone this is a wonderful documentary.
As is so often the way – the telling of this tale is impacted by a little dose of “documentary gold”, that kind of very bad luck that is such good luck if you’re a documentary filmmaker; even more so if you’re mid-stream, making the movie already…
Don Argott’s previous Last Days Here told the story of a metal addict bottoming out; here he starts a story of Lamb of God’s survival – and triumph across the world stage – by focussing on lead singer Randy Blythe’s conquering of his alcohol addiction. This isn’t a bottoming out; this is the next day, the new day. Blythe even announces early on that if it were not for the music that has kept him passionate and out of trouble he would have been in jail a long time ago.
A rock’n’roll cliché maybe – but you believe him.
So we whip around the world and the aim is to turn the camera on the fans, to celebrate and demystify metal fandom, it’s about a breaking down of barriers and all the while we’re right in there with the band, catching snippets of meetings, hearing stories of past aggression between members, the band all happier now for the end of Randy’s drinking.
And then he gets arrested in the Czech Republic. Next thing we’re no longer watching a band doco – we’re plunged headfirst into courtroom drama. Blythe is implicated in the death of a fan, the band returns to America while Blythe is in jail. He’s charged with manslaughter. Cut to a legal team analysing grainy footage. Cut to Blythe facing up to the fact that it will be a case of when rather than if in terms of further jail time. Cut to the rest of the band. The emotions swirl and those fan testimonies that were being gathered informally start to mean a whole lot more.
As The Palaces Burn still offers enough if you are a fan of the band and want to see your heroes doing their thing – that first third of the movie, the standard band-bio crossed with the return to work, preparations for the new tour and so on – that bit plays out in much the way you’ve seen before across so many music docos. But it’s great – really well put together and there’s a lovely irony in these well-spoken, intelligent, thoughtful and quiet, low-key guys getting together to make such noise. That’s never – quite – played for laughs, but it’s part of the magic of this film, part of the appeal of having this as something that extends out beyond the obvious fan base.
The fact that Argott was on hand to catch that magical “documentary gold” means this film goes above and beyond, transcends any notion of being just a good music doc – it’s one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in a long time.